Anyone familiar with Liz Phair's indie-rock touchstone Exile in Guyville probably isn't surprised by the stiff wall of criticism that came with the release of her self-titled fourth album.
And no one could have seen it coming as well as Phair herself.
"You don't get the full impact until you actually go through it," she said, "but I definitely knew we were going to get heat."
The heat -- cold criticism, really -- stems from the marked musical change best exemplified by the album's first single, "Why Can't I?," which was co-written by songwriting trio the Matrix. Yes, the same Matrix who helped Avril get "Complicated," and the similarities between the two are impossible to overlook. Acoustic guitar lays the foundation for each tune, and a similar vocal cadence leads into the choruses, both of which are punctuated by a crunchy electric guitar.
Compared to the lo-fi sound of the decade-old Guyville, Liz Phair, released June 24, sounds as polished and detailed as a cherry red Corvette. And while Guyville contained what could be construed as love songs, none were so saccharinely blatant as lines like "Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you?" from Phair's current single.
Thus the question on the minds of Phair pundits is: After three albums that awarded her the title of dreamy indie queen (among other things), has Liz Phair become so desperate for a mainstream single that she's resorted to "selling out" with those responsible for "Sk8er Boi"?
The move toward a more radio-friendly sound isn't so much desperation as it is evolution, Phair explained.
"[The change] is both a feature of how long it was between records," she said, referring to the five-year gap since whitechocolatespaceegg, "and also me kind of pulling out of a specific scene. I mean, I've been out of this indie scene for a long time, and I think people don't know that. And because I am the kind of person that still likes Wilco and I've just played some shows with the Flaming Lips, there is this thing about me that I think people don't know. And that's that I enjoy both radio hits and kind of obscure music. And maybe on this record they are hearing more of my tastes swinging to a range that they are not comfortable with."
Collaborating with the Matrix wasn't as difficult as one might assume for Phair, who's previously taken co-songwriting credit only sparingly. It helped that she called Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards friends before she knew them collectively as the Matrix.
"I went to meet the Matrix," she recalled, "and once I opened the door and saw who it was ... [I realized] I had known them already, I just didn't know what they did for a living. And so I was immediately very sure that it would be a positive creative experience. I trusted them."
Together they composed four of the album's 14 tracks, and Phair considers them among most dynamic tunes in her repertoire. They're at least the biggest departure. And they're also the best evidence of her new direction, and what she looks forward to playing most when she embarks on a five-week tour on July 21, even if some of the audience bought tickets solely for the chance to hear Phair classics like "F--- and Run," "Flower" and "Supernova."
"I love those songs when I hear them. They are some of the things I like to sing live the best because they are challenging vocal exercises," she said. "They're just fabulous and just send me into a whole different place artistically.
"But that's not what people [who've only heard 'Why Can't I?'] are experiencing yet. They are just kind of getting a record and hearing that these are the people who produced Avril, and they're spinning out a little bit. And I think what will happen over the next year is, when people hear me live and hear the old songs next to the new songs, it's really a pretty good blend. Like, 'Wow, live it all makes sense.' "
Liz Phair tour dates, according to Capitol Records:
- 7/21 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore